‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’, 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was supposed to have once said. However, since that line was likely made up by Mark Twain, ‘making up quotes about people’ should possibly be included as a fourth category. Statistics have come a long way since Disraeli’s prime ministership in the 1800s – even since his name was coopted into the title of Cream’s best album in the 1960s. Indeed, in the big-data era, statistics are crucial to making sense of science. Even in biology – especially in biology – which is disappointing for everyone who went into biology because they didn’t like maths. *raises hand sheepishly*
It’s the job of our next curator to make biostatistics make sense to people. Dr Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, aka @moefeliu, is the Manager of Outreach at the University of Washington Department of Biostatistics (@UWBiostat). She is also the vice-director and news editor-in-chief of Ciencia Puerto Rico (@CienciaPR), an organization leveraging social networks to engage scientists in science communication and education. RealScientists followers will recall @CienciaPR through our former curator Dr Greetchen Diaz. Mónica’s bilingual outreach efforts focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics and opportunities, as well as increasing diversity in science and science communication. In 2013, she received the COPUS Paul Shin Memorial Award for her efforts to increase public understanding of science among Hispanic audiences. Her work has been featured on international media outlets, such as Univisión and VOXXI, among others. And this week, she’s featuring on RealScientists!
How and why did you end up in science?
I was a scientist by vocation before I was one by training. Growing up in a home in rural Puerto Rico, nature was the ‘play laboratory’ where I developed an intense interest in science. I collected rocks, had pet-lizards, and wanted to understand how things around me worked. Nine-year-old me would have loved to become a scientist, except I didn’t know what that meant. I had never met a scientist. I thought science was done elsewhere, by people who looked nothing like me.
Then when I was 11 years old, a very personal experience got me interested in the brain and how it affects behavior. So, early on, I wanted to become a psychiatrist because it was the only profession I knew about that was related to the brain.
Once in college, two words changed my life: “Try research,” said my freshman Biology professor (first scientist I ever met), as she handed me an application for a summer research program. After my first month in the laboratory, the thrill of discovery got me hooked on research and I decided I wanted to become a research scientist. That initial experience introduced me to neuroscience, the field where I eventually earned my Ph.D.
Why did you choose your current field, and what keeps you there?
When I moved from Puerto Rico to the United States to pursue a research career, I wanted to be able to stay connected to my community. One of the strongest motivators for me to go train in the U.S. was to be able to use my knowledge and experiences to contribute to the advancement of science in Puerto Rico. Originally, I thought I would accomplish that by coming back to Puerto Rico after completing my Ph.D.
Even before I started my Ph.D. (I did a three-year stint as a research technician at MIT before starting my Ph.D. at Harvard) I kept thinking: “I want to give back. I want to pay it forward.” In 2006 I found a way to do this when I became involved with Ciencia Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization that uses social networking to connect and engage members of the Puerto Rican scientific community with science communication and education. Long story short, it was through my volunteer work with this organization that I discovered my current path as an outreach scientist and science communicator.
As a child, I didn’t have any scientific role models and mentors, or many science education resources in school. Having experienced many of the challenges that keep students from developing an interest in science, and the science literacy and problem solving skills needed to thrive in the complex world we live in, I have a strong interest in using my scientific training to bring science to the masses, particularly young people who, like me, do not see themselves readily represented in science. Having the opportunity to share science, to educate and inspire people through science is what moves me. It gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me up working late at night.
Mónica collecting her PhD from Harvard
Tell us about your work, and why people should be interested in it?
I am the Manager of Outreach at the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington, Seattle (UW). In this role I lead, create and maintain a range of outreach efforts to attract attendees to Departmental programs such as the Summer Institutes, a series of short intensive modules in basic and advanced biostatistical principles and methods (which I also co-coordinate). I do outreach to alumni and the general academic community. I help create awareness about biostatistics and the research and people in the department among lay audiences through news articles and social media. I am also creating initiatives that will allow scientists and students in the department to reach out to K-12 students, something that has never been formally done in the department and for which I am very excited. This position allows me to combine my experiences as a research and an outreach scientist and my passion for sharing science.
Before working in a biostatistics department, I had a limited impression of the breadth of the applications and research topics in the field. I thought biostatistics had to do with clinical trials and not much else. Since then have learned that biostatistics is so much more! Biostatisticians develop the tools that allow scientists to interpret and exploit data from the genomes of humans and other organisms; to help law enforcement combat wildlife crime; and to predict the transmission patters of infectious diseases, among many other things. I have gained a great appreciation for the interdisciplinarity of the field. Biostatistics is a field where biology, public health, math and computer science come together.
I like to say that biostatisticians help makes sense of data and turn it into useful knowledge. It is a very exciting field. We live in an increasingly data-centric world, and biostatistics’ will help provide answers to some of today’s most pressing challenges, from science to business and finance.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
I am the volunteer vice-director and news editor of Ciencia Puerto Rico (CienciaPR). It is through my work with this organization that my passion for making science accessible and relevant to underserved audiences is most powerfully realized. For CienciaPR, I write about science for lay audiences and help fellow scientists do the same (in Spanish and English). I blog. I co-created, co-edited and was a contributing author for the book ¡Ciencia Boricua!, an anthology of multidisciplinary easy-to-understand science essays written by scientists for the general public and the first book to actively contextualize science to the Puerto Rican reality, by making science meaningful and relatable. I mentor students. I tweet. I am also heavily involved with the administration of the organization. I get to be inspired everyday by working with a passionate team of volunteers who are committed about promoting science and research.
I also speak publicly about my experiences as a Latina woman in science and a Spanish-language science communicator. I use contextually-relevant and experiential-based lessons to make science and scientific role models accessible to underserved audiences.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I love to read. Unfortunately I don’t have as much time to read as I would like. I enjoy being outdoors. Strolling through the park, hiking or just sitting outside in the sun. I also love baseball, wine and beer tasting and chocolate.
How would you describe your ideal day off?
Sitting at the beach on a nice sunny day, with a good book, good music on my iPod. No cell phones, no emails. It’s one of the things I miss the most about living on a tropical island.
Or failing that, jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane…
Please welcome Mónica to RealScientists!